Md. Se­nate passes crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form bill af­ter de­bate over amend­ments lim­it­ing scope

The Enquire-Gazette - - Front Page - By LEXIE SCHAPITL Cap­i­tal News Ser­vice

AN­NAPO­LIS — The Mary­land Se­nate unan­i­mously passed a sweep­ing crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form bill March 24, de­spite de­bate that amend­ments had lim­ited the leg­is­la­tion’s scope and ef­fect.

The Jus­tice Rein­vest­ment Act aims to re­duce Mary­land’s prison pop­u­la­tions, corrections spend­ing and re­cidi­vism rates by re­fo­cus­ing cor­rec­tional re­sources on “se­ri­ous and vi­o­lent of­fend­ers,” ac­cord­ing to a leg­isla­tive anal­y­sis.

Pro­vi­sions of the bill would limit pun­ish­ments for tech­ni­cal vi­o­la­tions of pa­role and al­ter max­i­mum penal­ties for some drug of­fenses. The bill also es­tab­lishes an ad­min­is­tra­tive pa­role process for non­vi­o­lent of­fend­ers who have served one-fourth of their sen­tences and meet cer­tain re­quire­ments.

Sen. Michael Hough (R-Car­roll, Fred­er­ick), called the bill the largest re­form of the state’s crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem in a gen­er­a­tion, cit­ing a shift to­ward drug treat­ment for peo­ple with ad­dic­tion, a dra­matic re­duc­tion in the use of manda­tory min­i­mums for drug crimes, and elim­i­na­tion of the dis­par­ity be­tween penal­ties for crack and pow­dered co­caine.

While the process of craft­ing the bill was “in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult,” the com­mit­tee achieved a com­pro­mise that could lead to less in­car­cer­a­tion, greater re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of of­fend­ers and sav­ings of tax­payer dol­lars, he said.

While the bill passed unan­i­mously by a vote of 46-0 Thurs­day, senators from both sides of the aisle voiced con­cerns about the leg­is­la­tion.

Some senators said amend­ments to the bill had lim­ited the im­pact of its re­forms and the fis­cal sav­ings it would cre­ate.

The Se­nate Ju­di­cial Pro­ceed­ings Com­mit­tee last week made changes to the bill that al­low for more judges’ dis­cre­tion in grant­ing pa­role and sen­tenc­ing pa­role vi­o­la­tors, to pro­tect pub­lic safety, said com­mit­tee Chair Sen. Robert Zirkin (D-Bal­ti­more County).

Many crimes that can be very vi­o­lent are not con­sid­ered crimes of vi­o­lence by the state, Zirkin said.

Zirkin said the ad­min­is­tra­tive pa­role pro­vi­sion amounts to au­to­matic pa­role for some of­fend­ers, and with­out amend­ment would ap­ply to crim­i­nals con­victed of hu­man traf­fick­ing, sec­ond de­gree as­sault, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and con­spir­acy to com­mit mur­der or rape.

“I think it would be in­sane not to give [judges] dis­cre­tion for these vi­o­lent crim­i­nals,” he said.

There are 37 other pro­vi­sions in the bill that fo­cus on treat­ment for drug of­fend­ers, re­duce the use of manda­tory min­i­mums, ex­punge crim­i­nal records and re­duce sen­tences, and the Ju­di­cial Pro­ceed­ings Com­mit­tee amend­ments were a “very rea­son­able step” to keep high-risk, dan­ger­ous crim­i­nals off the street, Zirkin said.

The bill would also in­crease the max­i­mum penal­ties for sec­ond-de­gree mur­der and kid­nap­ping from 30 years to 40 years.

A leg­isla­tive anal­y­sis stated the amend­ments would dras­ti­cally re­duce the fis­cal im­pact of the mea­sure, re­duc­ing sav­ings to Mary­land tax­pay­ers from the orig­i­nal bill’s $247 mil­lion over the next 10 years to $34 mil­lion over the same time span.

Com­mit­tee mem­bers said Thurs­day this anal­y­sis is wrong. These num­bers do not ac­count for po­ten­tial sav­ings that would re­sult from many pro­vi­sions, in­clud­ing the re­lease of of­fend­ers af­ter re­view of manda­tory min­i­mum sen­tences or the place­ment of ad- dicts into drug treat­ment in­stead of in­car­cer­a­tion, Zirkin said.

Sen. Richard Madaleno (D-Mont­gomery) said he had “mixed feel­ings” about vot­ing to pass the bill. In some ways — like by ex­tend­ing the length of some sen­tences — this bill moves back­ward, he said.

“This is a small step when I think many peo­ple had hoped for a big step that would put Mary­land at the fore­front of get­ting peo­ple out of prison, get­ting peo­ple the ser­vices they needed and ac­tu­ally com­ing up a more hu­mane and a cheaper crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem,” Madaleno said.

Sen. Delores Kel­ley (D-Bal­ti­more County) said Zirkin cited “un­usual and ex­treme” cases of vi­o­la­tions of pro­ba­tion, when more of­ten tech­ni­cal vi­o­la­tions con­sist of things like miss­ing an ap­point­ment with an of­fi­cer in or­der to go to work.

“No­body in here wants vi­o­lent peo­ple on the street,” Kel­ley said. “But the fact is to scare us all to death with sit­u­a­tions that aren’t the not help­ful.”

Madaleno and Kel­ley sug­gested that law­mak­ers might make ad­di­tional changes to the bill af­ter it moves through the House or reaches in a con­fer­ence com­mit­tee.

Sen. James Brochin (D-Bal­ti­more County) said some pro­vi­sions of the bill — such as ex­punge­ment for theft — give him and other more con­ser­va­tive mem­bers “in­cred­i­ble heart­burn.” But the fo­cus on ad­dic­tion treat­ment rather than in­car­cer­a­tion is “mon­u­men­tal,” and the Se­nate ver­sion strikes a “per­fect bal­ance,” Brochin said.

Sen. Robert Cas­silly (R-Har­ford) said other con­ser­va­tive mem­bers of the cham­ber are “rather un­com­fort­able,” with the en­tire bill.

“We’re un­com­fort­able, but we’re will­ing to go along and I think this is a great re­sult,” Cas­silly said.

Sen. Nathaniel McFad­den (D-Bal­ti­more) said this bill ad­dresses the over-in­car­cer­a­tion of peo­ple of color and ex­pands drug treat­ment and ex­punge­ment poli­cies, things he has been work­ing to­ward for 21 years.

It can be up­set­ting to hear peo­ple crit­i­cize the achieve­ments of this bill “like it’s noth­ing,” he said.

“This is a dra­matic move for­ward,” McFad­den said. “Is it a per­fect move? Noth­ing is per­fect. Does ev­ery­one agree? Ab­so­lutely not.”

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